In the far western Brooks Range near the Chukchi Sea is a remote and rugged wilderness. The country is stunning and rich in wildlife. Rolling green tundra is punctuated by steep rocky ridges. Local features have poetic names like “Inaccessible Ridge” and “Sphinx Mountain” Golden Eagles soar in the brilliant sky searching the mountains for prey. Wolves wander the ridge tops hoping to find caribou migrating through. You can be part of it all.
The headwaters of the Kokolik River are the very Northwestern extreme of the Brooks Range and there is ample solitude and room to roam. The only trails in the area are those made by passing caribou. There are no campgrounds, no other hikers, and not even any footprints on our route through the mountains. We trade the noise of civilization for nearly 24 hour daylight, long vistas, quiet canyons, and the possibility of wildlife around every corner.
Starting in near the continental divide surrounded by craggy peaks, we spend our first evening scanning the cliffs for Dall Sheep. As we head north the vistas open up and the tundra rolls northward. The wide open plains, home to musk oxen and myriad birds, are etched with deep caribou trails.
We follow these ancient paths north towards the Kokolik, alert for animal encounters at all times. The hiking won’t be easy, but in return for the hard work of Alaska backpacking, we enjoy rugged colorful peaks, soft green valleys, and (if lucky) abundant wildlife.
We’ll travel about 30 miles with backpacks during the seven days and nearly as many miles on the optional day hikes. The route is an easy one in terms of elevation gain and the terrain covered, but there will be some long days and we’ll need to cross creeks from time to time. Hiking in the arctic is an “off-trail” experience, so a six-mile day can take as long and be as taxing as ten miles in other parts of the world. Experience backpacking is recommended for this trip, but novices in good shape, who are willing to do some training, would enjoy the trip too. Each hiker will carry 15-20 pounds of food and community gear in addition to personal gear; due to the small group size and the trip’s duration, expect to start the trip with a pack weighing no less than 45 pounds.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting in Kotzebue.
Fly northwest from Kotzebue, across the Noatak River and deep into the DeLong Mountains. Our skilled pilot lands on a river bar near the headwaters of the Kugururok River. Once the pilot leaves, we’re on our own. We’ll hike several miles to the first of many lovely camps. You’ll have the evening to settle into your surroundings, hike up a ridge or just gape at the awe-inspiring scenery.
Heading north across the arctic divide, we wind our way through the highest peaks of the DeLong Mountains. Once we cross the divide the country opens up and views stretch to the horizon. Your guide will help you find the best route through the wilderness and each evening we will make camp by a creek and have several hours to explore the area unencumbered by packs. Early in the trip there will be two small passes to negotiate. The ascents are fairly gradual and the views are unforgettable.
Hike a short distance to meet our plane at the Kokolik River. Weather permitting we fly back to Kotzebue mid-day and change our socks.
Such a joy to spend days where time was meaningless. A wonderful adventure and I would like to return next year for a longer, more challenging trip.
You mentioned to me in an email that you have terrific guides – you do indeed. Dave is a superb guide. He is personable, knowledgeable about the Arctic, and has excellent group management skills. I appreciated the time he spent teaching me to read the map, which is not easy without trails. He allowed Adrian and me to hike at our own pace and he encouraged all of us to explore the area surrounding our campsites. I know the others would concur in my praise.
Transportation beyond Kotzebue
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Weather this time of year is often clear and beautiful. Because it’s the arctic, snow is always possible and you can expect temperatures to range from the 30s to the 70s. The bugs on this trip could be bad. Bring DEET and a headnet.
Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer
People of the Noatak by Clair Fejes
Caribou and the Barren Lands by George Calef
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
Alaska Wilderness by Robert Marshall
Last Light Breaking by Nick Jans
Arctic Wild by Lois Crisler
More Alaska reading is available from our Bookstore.